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The Scapegoat

At 60 Minutes, Mary Mapes broke news that helped shape history. Then came a controversial story about George W. Bush. A new movie offers her a shot at redemption.

For a time, Mary Mapes really got into knitting. During the most stressful stretch—when strangers were digging through her garbage and threatening her on the internet—she was knitting constantly. She says the late writer Molly Ivins once warned her not to knit too much. “Molly took it up when she quit smoking and got carpal tunnel,” Mapes says. “She said, ‘Mary, don’t overknit.’ ” But Mapes didn’t listen. She took all the frantic energy that had made her a great television producer and put it into needles and yarn. 

“I had a 60 Minutes-sized hole in my life,” she says. “So I made blankets, socks, sweaters, anything you could imagine. I made so many scarves, they would have wrapped around the planet 19 times and gone to the moon and back. I was basically begging friends to get pregnant so I’d have new people to knit for.”

She holds up her right hand and shows that her thumb doesn’t rotate quite right. “I overknitted.”

We’re having a lunch of salad and wine at Oak, a posh restaurant in the Design District. The place is full of business meetings. Barking conversations and hearty belly laughs echo off the walls. She showed up 20 minutes after me but had texted: “Running a tad late. Lost my car key. Good God!” Then, a few minutes later: “Almost there in a Lyft car with no AC. I will look mentally ill by the time I arrive.”

She doesn’t. She’s in her 50s and presents as simultaneously sophisticated and homespun. She grew up on a strawberry farm in Washington state but spent a career traveling the world. She has an unlined face, with blue eyes and a short, blond bouffant that curls over the back of her neck. At turns she seems excited, nervous, stupefied. She knows that, with a movie—Truth, which dramatizes her downfall—about to see wide release, the worst parts of her life are going to come back up. She also knows that, with the infinitely lovable Cate Blanchett playing her, this movie could change public perceptions.

“Just saying it out loud—‘Cate Blanchett is playing me in a movie’—how ridiculous and pretentious does that sound?” she says. “It’s like this incredibly elaborate practical joke someone is playing.”

More than 10 years have passed since CBS fired Mapes for producing the story at the center of what became known as “Memogate.” Before the controversy, she was one of the most respected journalists in television. Her life was war zones and riots and hurricanes. She got the first photos of Americans abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. She got the first interview with Strom Thurmond’s mixed-race daughter. And she got to do all of this while working with the legendary Dan Rather. 

But a 60 Minutes piece she produced in September 2004, reporting that George W. Bush was derelict in his duty as a Texas Air National Guardsman during the Vietnam War, became one of the most controversial stories in modern American journalism. Mapes and her colleagues were excoriated, and when it was over, Mapes was fired, three CBS executives were forced to resign, and Rather, who had become a father figure to her, was pushed out of the anchorman’s chair.

Sitting here at lunch, Mapes is still bitter about the way it all went down. She hasn’t watched 60 Minutes—or any CBS news broadcast—in more than a decade. Both she and Rather still believe they were right, that they were merely questioning power and privilege, and that they were railroaded by a corporate-owned network more interested in currying political favor with the White House at the time. Rather wishes he’d never apologized.

She’s on her second glass of wine as she goes on about the state of journalism in 2015, how it seems truth is malleable and most outlets eschew substance for scandal. She still has an insatiable appetite for news, but it’s hard for her not to be cynical. “So much of it is just bullshit,” she says. “It kills me. This can’t be why these people got into journalism. To talk about Donald Trump’s hair?” Soon she mentions the Republican debates. “It’s like they’re trying to elect the president from Idiocracy.”

She’s sharp, witty. Conversation with her is never awkward or dull. She talks about stories she wishes she could do, how strange it is to see famous actors make a movie about moments in her life, and which 60 Minutes correspondents are terrible divas (pretty much all of them). At some point, we look up and notice that all the business lunches have dispersed, and all the suit jackets have gone back to their offices. Without realizing it, we’ve talked for more than two and a half hours. She didn’t have any other place to be.

When she was a little girl, Mapes loved watching the news. They only had three channels, and sometimes her father would dismantle the rotor that turned the television’s antenna, so nobody could change the channel. “He was always doing these really crappy, mean things to bully us,” Mary’s younger sister, Diane, says. “Our childhood was a war zone. We all did what we could to get through it.” 

One afternoon, though, Mary, then about 11 years old, decided she was going to change the channel no matter what. So she stacked bales of hay, a picnic table, benches, and a garbage can next to the house and climbed onto the roof. She grabbed the antenna and started shifting it, calling down to her sisters so she’d know when the picture was good.

“It’s like he and Mary had this Shakespearean relationship,” Diane says. “He was this abusive, alcoholic chauvinist who had five girls and no boys. And he took it out on us. But Mary would always stand up to him.” It often got violent. “This was a full-grown man and a little girl, so he would mop the floor with her,” Diane says. “But she would throw out snide remarks in the middle of the beating.”

Mary would get revenge in the little ways children can. Like stacking hay and climbing onto the roof. Or, when their father passed out in the living-room chair, Mary and her sisters would decorate him with toys and household objects. This, she says, is where she developed her disdain for bullies. This is her truth. She left home at 19 and, like most of her sisters, hasn’t spoken to her father in years. 

Mary could have produced for Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. She was a dedicated reporter who wound up being scapegoated by big corporate executives and their operatives.

Dan Rather

She went to the University of Washington, studying communications and political science, but didn’t graduate. Instead, she started working full-time at a Seattle television station, KIRO. That’s where she met Lisa Cohen, a producer. The two worked together for several years and have remained close in the decades since. Cohen says it didn’t take long for people to realize how serious Mapes was about her work.

“She has this wit about her, but she was absolutely passionate about tough stories, about telling the stories that had more depth to them,” Cohen says. “Someone later on, when the scandal was breaking, cynically said that Mary was always trying to change the world. But she was. She believed in her stories.”

Cohen remembers a news director at the station had hired actors to play reporters in a promo, and it infuriated Mapes. “It demeaned what we were doing,” Cohen says. “It completely discounted the authenticity of what we were striving for. These were in the days when journalism really mattered. We weren’t just covering detached-garage fires. We were doing documentaries.” So Mapes took action. “I still have this letter that Mary wrote to him,” she says. “It began, ‘My God, John!’ ”

It was also at KIRO that Mapes met Mark Wrolstad, the man who’d become her husband. At the time, Wrolstad was a reporter at the station. In the mid-1980s, they worked together on an investigation into the Green River serial killer; she would come back to the topic as a 60 Minutes producer years later. In 1989, they moved to Dallas, after she was offered a job with CBS News. Wrolstad became a Metro reporter at the Dallas Morning News

Covering national stories, Mapes earned a reputation for being tireless, tenacious, funny, and fast. Within a few years, she worked her way up the CBS ladder, to 60 Minutes, the highest-rated and most prestigious program in television news. One story profiled a man on death row in Arkansas whose son was also on death row in Arizona. The last time the father had seen his son was in a bassinet, the blankets concealing a pile of guns. The story started a nationwide debate over the “murder gene.”

As a producer, she worked with an entire team. There were associate producers, often freelancers, chasing down leads. There were consultants, like Lieutenant Colonel Roger Charles, the retired Marine who worked with Mapes on both the Abu Ghraib and the Air National Guard stories. (He is played by Dennis Quaid in the movie.) There were camera crews and editors and sometimes special analysts or technology experts. And, finally, there was the correspondent, the face of the entire production. Correspondents don’t have much to do with the reporting. They work on as many as 20 stories a year and often fly in to conduct interviews and record voice-over. They are the celebrities of the operation. 

Mapes’ favorite story, she says, was about Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the mixed-race daughter of Strom Thurmond. Thurmond, a Republican senator from South Carolina who ran for president as a segregationist and filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act for more than 24 hours, had kept this daughter a secret until he died at age 100. Reporters heard rumors and had been trying to get her story for more than 50 years—to no avail. As a producer for 60 Minutes, Mapes courted the woman for months. She brought her a bouquet of flowers. Washington-Williams, then nearing 80, had been a schoolteacher for 27 years. One day she got a phone call from Mapes asking her to teach America “one final history lesson.”

“That story had everything,” Mapes says. “It had racial and class and political elements. Plus, it had this smart, funny woman who had been cast aside. And it allowed us to see Strom Thurmond in a different way.” (At the time, Washington-Williams referred to her deceased father as “a great man.”)

In 2000, Mapes started hearing what she calls “whispers” about George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard record. She heard that his family had pulled strings to get him in—so he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam—and that parts of his official record were missing. She started looking into it, but around the same time, her mother died. She left work and went to Washington to be with her sisters. There was speculation on her team over the next four years that if her mother hadn’t died, Mapes would have done the story then, and the very tight Bush-Gore election would have gone the other way.

Dan Rather wishes he had never apologized for the story that got Mapes fired, a September 8, 2004 report that questioned if George W. Bush (left) had received preferential treatment while he was a lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s.

Dan Rather’s voice is unmistakable and sonorous, even when he’s speaking on the phone from the backseat of a car driving through Los Angeles. After 16 years of writing for him, Mapes calls it “the voice of God.” 

“Mary was, by consensus, considered one of the best television news producers in the craft,” Rather says. “She could have produced for Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. She was a dedicated reporter who wound up being scapegoated by big corporate executives and their operatives.”

After the Abu Ghraib story in early 2004—which Rather calls the most important story he’s reported in his 65 years in news—Mapes told executives at CBS about the old tips she’d heard about the president’s military record. Mapes said she’d always heard there were documents out there somewhere that the public hadn’t seen. This was the height of the Iraq War, not long after the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads attacking John Kerry’s military career. Not wanting to spring an “October surprise” before the election, they scheduled the story to run in September.

Mapes and a freelance reporter named Michael Smith (played in the movie by Topher Grace) met with a retired lieutenant colonel from the Texas Army National Guard named Bill Burkett, an anti-Bush zealot. Burkett gave them a series of memos purporting to be from the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, Bush’s squad commander in Houston during the early 1970s. They seemed to show that Lieutenant Bush had missed a physical and that his commanders were being asked to sugarcoat his performance reviews.

Mapes and her team went about trying to authenticate the memos. They brought on four analysts who compared them with the known documents from Bush’s record. One analyst, who later appeared on air, said the signatures were consistent with other Killian signatures. Because the memos Mapes got were photocopies, her document analysts noted that they were impossible to authenticate completely. Journalists deal with photocopied files all the time, so that didn’t bother her.

Most of the Texas Air National Guard officers they called either refused to talk or said nothing but nice things about Bush. Mapes got Ben Barnes, the former Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas, to do an on-camera interview in which he said that he personally made the call to get Bush into the Guard. She also called Killian’s former commander and read the documents over the phone to him to ask if they sounded consistent with Killian’s sentiments at the time. He said they were.

The story that aired September 8, 2004, was called “For the Record.” Almost instantly, conservative blogs began picking apart the report. There were questions about whether typewriters available in the early ’70s could have produced the “new” memos, questions about spacing and apostrophes and superscript—all things Mapes would become an expert on over the next year. A site called Little Green Footballs posted an image of one of the disputed memos next to a document created with the default settings in Microsoft Word, and they looked identical.

CBS went on the defensive, interviewing both Burkett and Killian’s former secretary on the air. Burkett said he’d originally lied about the origins of the documents, then told a new, equally unbelievable story about their provenance. (Many people believe Burkett forged the documents, though he has repeatedly denied the claim.) Killian’s secretary, Marian Carr Knox, said she thought the memos were fake, but noted that the content reflected the way Killian felt. “It seems that somebody did see those memos, and then tried to reproduce and maybe changed them enough so that he wouldn’t get in trouble over it,” she told Rather on the air a week after the initial report.

Not long after that, though, it became public that Mapes had put Burkett in touch with someone at John Kerry’s campaign—a favor Burkett had requested, because he believed he had valuable strategic advice on how to counter the Swift Boat attacks. Mapes was taken off the story.

She points out, when the subject comes up, that CBS was owned by Viacom at the time. And Viacom was, at that moment, lobbying the Bush administration in favor of further deregulation. Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone was a Bush supporter. 

By then, talk radio, cable news, and the then-burgeoning world of blogs were all consumed by the scandal. Conservatives jumped on the story as an example of everything that’s wrong with the media. Mapes’ name, phone number, and address were posted online, along with all manner of invective. She started seeing strangers standing in front of her house. At one point, her estranged father did an interview with a conservative radio station in Seattle.

“I’m really ashamed of my daughter, what she’s become,” he said. “She went into journalism with an ax to grind, that is, to promote feminism—and radical feminism, I might say—and liberalism.”

Her job had always been her identity. “When I called someone, it was, ‘This is Mary Mapes with 60 Minutes,’ ” she says. “After I got fired, it was, ‘This is Mary Mapes with no one.’ ”

Her sister Diane can barely contain her rage when she talks about it. “That was the worst of it,” she says. “It was like a monster from our childhood coming out of the closet to attack Mary.”

Twelve days after the original report, Rather was told to apologize on air. CBS commissioned a panel, headed by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who served under the first President Bush, and former Associated Press president Louis Boccardi. Over several months, the panel interviewed all the parties involved. When Mapes was questioned, she showed up with a thick notebook, ready to defend herself. (She still has the notebook, in a box labeled YOU KNOW WHAT.) The panel concluded that typewriters at the time could have produced the memos. In the end, they couldn’t say definitively whether the documents were authentic. But in January, Mapes was fired for what the panel’s report called “myopic zeal.”Rather left CBS Evening News in 2005, and left the network a year later. He believes the memos are authentic. This is his truth. “Nobody has ever proven that the documents were not what they purported to be,” he says. “They couldn’t attack us on the facts of the story, so they attacked the process by which we arrived at the truth.”

Mapes was in a daze for a while. Her life had been a whirlwind for years. Now it was quiet and still. She was drinking more, taking Xanax. She calls it “a certain level of trying to remove myself from the situation.” Her job had always been her identity. “When I called someone, it was, ‘This is Mary Mapes with 60 Minutes,’ ” she says. “After I got fired, it was, ‘This is Mary Mapes with no one.’ ”

Her husband took a leave from his job at the paper and was told his position was being eliminated. Mapes wrote a book, 2005’s Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, for which she was reportedly paid $250,000. She went on a brief media tour, defending herself to the likes of Bill O’Reilly.

When her fall ended, Mapes landed back in Dallas, on her comfortable couch, next to her husband and son and their three dogs. One day, her son Robert came home from second grade seeming worried. The boy sat his mother down and, with the kind of grave concern only a child can muster, told her that he’d heard something bad at school. This happened 10 years ago, but she remembers the moment well.

“Mama,” Robert said. “A girl at school says you got fired, and you really got screwed.” 

My God, she thought. Even second-graders knew about her professional humiliation. She wanted to protect her son. So she lied. She told him that his friend was mistaken. She also told him, “In this family, we don’t use the word ‘screwed.’ ”

She began focusing more on being a good mother and wife. There were more dinner parties, more walks in the neighborhood, more bumper bowling with her son. She started going to the movies, seeing documentaries by herself in the middle of the day. “A dark movie theater is a great place to hide out,” she says. 

In 2006, nearly two years after she was fired, Mapes was contacted by James Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, who wrote the screenplays for Zodiac and The Amazing Spider-Man, had read an excerpt of her book and decided it would make a good movie. He said he wanted to make it the first film he directed. 

“I’m always interested in stories about how the sausage is made,” Vanderbilt says. “And she’s a fascinating character. She’s incredibly intelligent, she’s extremely funny, and she’s caustic in a good way.”

Mapes was hesitant. She had no desire to summon once again the attention of her critics. But Vanderbilt was persistent. He asked if he and his wife could come to Dallas and meet her family.

“My wife is much more charming than I am,” Vanderbilt says.

So they met in Dallas. “We just hung out and talked about everything but this,” the filmmaker says. “She was still shook by all the things that happened, so I got to see this person who was both so strong and shaken to the core.”

Mapes eventually acquiesced. She gave Vanderbilt a signed copy of her book and inscribed it: “You have my life in your hands.”

Vanderbilt says from the beginning he knew he had to get all the details right. He wrote the script and sent it to her. She sent it back with notes about what people may have said and where certain scenes took place. They went back and forth for months. “We knew this wasn’t going to be the least controversial film,” Vanderbilt jokes.

Once they had a script they both liked, it still took years. Vanderbilt had other projects, and they knew much of the movie’s success would depend on the actors cast in the two main roles. Eventually, the production team found their leads and called Mapes to deliver the news. There were a lot of people on the line. “It reminded me of when I got fired,” she says. They told Mapes that Blanchett had been cast to play her.

“I was waiting for Tori Spelling,” Mapes says. 

They told her they’d found someone to play Dan Rather, too. “A young, up-and-coming actor named Robert Redford,” she says.

To help accommodate Blanchett’s schedule, the movie was shot in Australia—though you’d never know it. They found a house near Sydney that looks just like Mapes’ house on Swiss Avenue. The film also captures the world of high-end journalism: the long nights working in hotel rooms, the tediousness of combing through files, the thrill of finally reaching someone on the 19th try, the satisfaction of a well-received story. And in a lot of ways, this is her final shot at all the people who have wronged her—including her father.

Vanderbilt wanted to make sure the film isn’t simply a defense of Mapes and her team. “It was very important to have that balance,” he says. “My goal was always to put you in the main character’s shoes as she experienced it. But I give you those moments where you wonder if they did the right thing, and it’s up to you as an audience member to make that call.”

The first time Mapes saw the movie, she missed a lot of it. “It was almost like you black out,” she says. “You fixate on something small, and your mind just goes. You think, That phone was just like my phone in the office, and then you’re five minutes down the road and all this shit has happened.” She says it wasn’t until she saw it the fourth time that she could appreciate it as a film.

After the first public screening, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rather stood in front of the audience and teared up. “It’s an incredibly accurate film,” he told me. “But it’s about more than our story. The overarching narrative here is what has happened to the news. What the hell ever happened to the news?”

When Mapes works now—on writing and political research, mostly—it’s all behind the scenes, like a ghost. Her name would still be a distraction. It means she can’t do the stories she wants to. It means she’s a news producer without a show, a journalist without an outlet. She misses being in the mix. She misses having a front-row seat for history and the rush of flying off to cover another war while other journalists watched from a safe distance. She misses the close bond her team would build over weeks or months of working together. They were like a family.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, a few days after the Toronto premiere, and the reviews have been good. There is already talk of Oscar nominations. Mapes is at home with her feet up. A few days ago, she broke her ankle walking around the neighborhood. “I’m just a shit happens magnet,” she says.

Sitting here, next to her husband and son, there are a lot of things she doesn’t miss about her old job. She doesn’t miss having her life driven by current events. “I can actually plan to have dinner with someone and show up,” she says. “I like sleeping in my own bed. I like being able to spend time with my husband and son.” She adds: “Journalists always perform for each other. When you don’t have that, it gives you perspective.”

Her husband says seeing the movie gives him a sense of peace. “Finally someone is paying attention to the substance,” he says. “As journalists, the most important quality is to be fair and truthful and honest. It felt like all of those other elements—the corporation, the political world, the blogs—they weren’t being fair.”

Her son, now a teenager, says the movie gave him a new perspective on his mom. “My mother is one of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever met,” he says. “She’s been through so much.” He told her after they first watched it together, “Mom, you used to have a pretty important job.”

Mapes is aware, however, that there is another reality out there, a reality where there was no corporate greed or political power at work. A world where she was riding such a high from her previous stories and was so eager to take a shot at Bush right before the election that she wasn’t diligent enough. Where the documents they used on the air were obvious forgeries, made with the default settings of the most ubiquitous word processing program on the planet, and everyone associated with the story deserved to be fired. She knows there are people who think she was a part of the problem with the media—not the bloggers who attacked her.

“I know,” she says. “Some people will just always believe what they want to believe.”  


Michael J. Mooney

Michael J. Mooney

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